Belarus: Colleague of detained journalist Roman Protasevich receives death threats by text

The man who founded a dissident Belarusian media network with Roman Protasevich has told Sky News he has received death threats and is scared for his life – despite having fled the country.

Stepan Putilo claims the Belarusian government is trying to sow fear among its people and intimidate opponents such as himself.

He says that he has received threats to his life by text and also on social media, despite the fact he now lives in the Polish capital, Warsaw.

Mr Putilo said: “It is a terrible situation. We are afraid because they are texting us to say ‘you will be killed, even in Warsaw’.

“The goal is fear, it’s terror, it’s to force us to be silent. But we don’t agree. We continue our fighting against this regime and we will release our country.”

Mr Protasevich, a prominent opponent of the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, is in detention in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

He had previously fled his home country but was a passenger on a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania, which was ordered to land in Minsk by Belarusian authorities.

Mr Protasevich had founded the Nexta channel on the messaging service, Telegram, alongside Mr Putilo, a fellow dissident.

The channel was created as a way of avoiding Belarus‘s strict censorship laws, and now has around two million subscribers.

It has provided coverage of anti-government protests that have been pointedly ignored by state-controlled media, and its popularity has led to both its creators being labelled terrorists, and enemies of the state.

It is understood that Mr Lukashenko holds them personally responsible for many of the protests that followed his re-election to power.

His overwhelming victory is widely considered to have been a sham, with many European nations still refusing to accept his victory.

Mr Protasevich and Mr Putilo both left Belarus as a result of threats to their safety and liberty, but both have spoken of a desire to return in the future – if, and when, Mr Lukashenko has left office.

“Lukashenko is not winning – he doesn’t have any future, or any prospect of a normal political life,” Mr Putilo claimed when we spoke.

“But now is the time when the world must act.

“I am afraid the European community will forget about us. They must renew sanctions, introduce more sanctions, and provide official steps to stop the regime’s terror.

“They must start more economic action and international sanctions – more diplomatic action from everyone in Europe.

“Plus there needs to be more steps – even switching off the SWIFT banking system in Belarus. This can force the regime to think and reflect on what they are doing.”

Mr Putilo told me he had spoken to Mr Protasevich before he joined the flight to Lithuania, saying that his friend “had been working without a break for the past eight months and needed a vacation”.

He said he was “shocked” that the plane had been forced to land, and added: “I couldn’t believe this was possible in the centre of Europe in a country that, according to Lukashenko, is democratic.

“It wasn’t an accident. It was a special forces operation to catch an enemy – our colleague.

“They want to show that, going forward, if you want to be free, you cannot do anything for freedom. As long as Lukashenko’s regime is in control, there is no freedom of speech or freedom of movement.

“Yes, I am afraid. It’s normal to have the instinct of self-preservation. But it’s more important to continue what we have started with Roman.”

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